Published July 25, 2003
I was having dinner at Casa Grande when a portly Paraguayan came up and started serenading me with his guitar. Duly serenaded, he invited me for dinner. He said his name was Don Felix, he claimed to be a member of the band Dos Paragayos, and said he had played Antonio Banderas’ guitar parts in Desperado. What, exactly, he was doing playing in a medium budget restaurant in Reykjavík I did not know, but I had to find out, and so I accepted. At the very least, I hoped, the man was a decent cook.
We set the time for Sunday. Meanwhile, I had a country ball to go to. The country ball is almost as much of a tradition as is the drunken camping trip, the idea being that drinking in different surroundings will be a vastly different experience from being drunk in the usual ones.
The band playing was Stuðmenn, by far the best goodtime band in the country, and has been for about 30 years. Whereas most pretenders since have contented themselves with singing soppy love songs or simple exhortations to party, the Stuðmenn songs, although often on the same themes, have always seemed a little more profound. In between the good time anthems there is always the sense of looming tragedy, the tears of the clown that makes his laughter all the more necessary. Perhaps their tragicomic masterpiece is the song Slá í gegn, which has the fist in the air chorus about making it, until it concludes that for some reason it has always been out of reach, a sentiment every aspiring artist (and who in this country isn’t?) knows all too well. Another song that straddles the often narrow divide between joy and grief is Blindfullur (Dead Drunk), which again has a chorus singalong tailormade for country balls, before warning about the inevitable end of such revelry with the repeated line “I’m going to give up drinking tomorrow.”
Grapevine had one of its rare moments of euphoria on the dancefloor, an area that under any other circumstances is best left to those more agilely built. Afterwards, we joined the backstage party. Sadly, giggling groupies and mountains of cocaine are absent, and even the fridge isn’t well stocked. Instead, I find myself having a conversation with singer Egill Ólafsson. He starts talking about the constant need of Icelanders to document the past, and wonders why the Sagas were written in Iceland rather than, say, Norway or Denmark, as many have done before him. His solution, however, is a novel one. He draws a parallel with Kenya, where he once worked as an actor for a French company (for a while Egill was the Gerard Depardieu of Iceland, it seemingly written into the constitution that not a film could be made here without him having some sort of role). He said the area he was residing in was brimming over with Stasi refugees, who had come over in droves with the money they stole in office when the wall came down. They seemed to have an almost pathological need to document everything, and most of them had built some sort of museum about East Germans in Africa. He likens this to Icelanders, themselves refugees who could never return, and hence busied themselves writing the sagas.
Grapevine is not quite sure what to make of the idea that it is descended from the 9th century equivalent of corrupt East German officials, so it is perhaps for the best that the conversation now turns to music. Grapevine’s memory is getting a bit hazy by this time, but it clearly remembers Egill saying that Stuðmenn were definitely (and defiantly?) low-culture, despite Grapevine’s protestations. If such is the case, then they are without a doubt the kings of low-culture. Long may they reign.
Back in town, hangover receeding, I went to look up the Don. I found the prescribed address, which happened to be a community house for the handicapped in Fossvogur. He answered me dressed in a jogging suit, and ushered me into the kitchen. “You look, I teach, I very good teacher,” he told me. Not only that, he is also one of the most impressively hung men Grapevine has ever been in the presence of, and his jogging suit made little attempt to conceal this. Images of aluminium wrapped cucumbers started springing to mind, but Grapevine, always wanting to take people in good faith, did not pursue this line of thought.
“A Felix production,” he announced proudly as he presented me with something that resembled a tiny, hard pizza, which in fact tastes better than it sounds. “I very rich,” he proclaimed as I munched on it. He told me he had a house in Hveragerði and on the Canaries, and that Aristotle Onassis had once presented him with a guitar. Sadly, the guitar no longer exists. I wondered why an international man of mystery such as him had chosen to live in a state-owned condo in Reykjavík. He answered that when he had been in India in 1972, playing at a Hotel, he had met Mother Teresa and seen the error of his ways, realised that money does not bring happiness and swore off the pursuit of earthly riches. This, apparently, had led him on the path to Fossvogur.
His career started at age 11. Growing up on a farm on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, he was discovered by minions of Evita Peron who personally presented him with an award. He then shows me a picture of the Spanish royal family, presented to him for his humanitarian work, which is something he has continued to pursue here, playing for those in need without asking for compensation. In hushed tones he tells me “my wife is very sick,” with arthritis, it transpires, for which she is having an operation in the autumn. We have a chicken dinner and then the Don sits down to play for his guests. He shifts in his chair, and his magnificent bulge comes into view. Felix the musician plays an instrumental he composed to honour Iceland, before Felix the political commentator tells me that the politicians here aren’t doing anything for the country.
I agree wholeheartedly before Felix the social critic points out that the problem with Iceland is that it’s run by about 25 families. “Glöggt er gestsaugað,” goes the saying, which might translate as “sharp is the eye of Felix.” He says that on the Canary Islands, they managed to increase tourists from 2 to 12 million. Felix the tourism entrepreneur says that it is important that the police smile at visitors. I doubt the advantage of living in the Gran Canaries of the North, where tourists are escorted to bars by smiling policemen, but given the choice between this and those who want to turn Iceland into the Sheffield of the even farther north through the mass industrialisation of the highlands, I might feasibly opt for the former. I counter that Björk has done a lot to put Iceland on the map. At this suggestion, the mighty Felix gets out of his chair, his bulge flowing, in all its glory, downwards into the trouser leg.
“Björk not important,” he says. “Felix much more important. Felix always speak well of Iceland.” Grapevine, even if it were so inclined, would not dare object. I promise Felix that together we will make Iceland great. We shake hands and Grapevine goes home to sleep off its hangover, leaving Felix, he of the big heart and even bigger trouser bulge behind.